From luxury eco lodges in West Africa to staying with the local royal family in Rajasthan, volunteer tourism no longer means having to rough it.
When most people think of volunteering abroad they imagine having to stay in very basic accommodation or perhaps living with a local family where they can really get to know the culture and this in itself is part of the attraction. In the past it was taken for granted that volunteering had to involve some kind of deprivation on the part of the volunteer but the award-winning company People and Places take a very different approach.
“Some of our volunteers choose projects where the only available accommodation is a tent, but many more have a range of options and can choose to live with local families or in a locally owned guesthouse or hotel. We believe that effective and responsible volunteering is all about skills transfer – working with local people to help them build the future they want for themselves – and if volunteers are comfortable with their surroundings, they can achieve far more!” says Sallie Grayson, Programme Director, People and Places
The hotels and guesthouses that People and Places recommend are owned by local people and employ local people under equitable conditions. This ensures that the money the volunteers pay for their accommodation reaches the local community. In Nepal, for instance volunteers may work with a rural village community while staying at the world-renowned Tiger Mountain Lodge, while in India, volunteers in Deogarh, Rajasthan, stay with the local royal family in the Mahal but both the Mahal and the Nepalese lodge heavily subsidise the volunteers’ accommodation, as part of their corporate social responsibility.
“Some volunteers can even take the best of both worlds – staying with a family during the week and then treating themselves to creature comforts at the weekends. Part of our matching process is to encourage volunteers to be honest with themselves about the living conditions they need to function effectively. The homestay families that we work with are wonderful – they open their homes and their hearts to the volunteers, sharing their lives with them. Total privacy, hot water or an inside loo may not be among these gifts, so it’s important that volunteers can choose their accommodation as well as their project. In some remote locations, there’s no option other than a homestay, and it may not be right for everyone.” Sallie explained. “Volunteering done right is emotionally challenging – and often exhausting. If you need a comfy bed, a hot shower and glass of wine at the end of a hard day, why deprive yourself? What does it prove? It certainly doesn’t help local people.”
Sandele Eco-Retreat, in The Gambia, West Africa, is a great example of how volunteers can contribute to the local community whilst not forgoing their creature comforts. The retreat is built on 20 hectares of land adjacent to 5 miles of undeveloped coastline near the village of Kartong in southern Gambia. Each volunteer has their own private room with ensuite facilities. Whilst currently owned by British couple, Geri and Maurice, it has been built in consultation with the local community who will be given full ownership of the retreat in 25 years’ time (from opening in 2008).
The Gambia is one of the poorest countries in the world with high unemployment and over half the population living on less than £1 a day. As well as the eco-retreat itself which employees 70% of its staff from Kartong, Geri and Maurice have set up a foundation that is involved with a number of other community initiatives working closely with the entire community of Kartong, where unemployment levels are regularly as high as 70%.
Sandele Eco-Retreat and ancillary operations need training and support in the following areas:
- Development of general management skills including human resources and administration
- Hospitality management
- Development of strategic planning
- Marketing strategy and implementation
- Information technology
- Web design
Why People and Places?
People and Places have recently teamed up with The Gambia Experience who have been providing holidays in The Gambia for over 25 years and are fully bonded giving volunteers financial security as well as the advantages of their expert, in-depth knowledge of the destination. Very few volunteer organisations can offer this ‘Packaged’ experience that is perfect for people who are not used to travelling independently.
I recently meet up with Sallie, Katie and Diane from People and Places and I was really impressed not just with what they do but also with the way they do it. Volunteer tourism has a got a rather bad name for itself and I’ve heard a few horror stories such as instances where local teachers have been dismissed because the school knew that a volunteer teacher was coming or where volunteers have turned up at a community who didn’t know they were even coming.
People and Places take their responsibilities to both the local community and the volunteer very seriously, ensuring that both benefit from the experience. The volunteers always work alongside the community and never instead of. The volunteering is all about exchanging skills. For example, volunteer teachers always work alongside a local teacher and if the local teacher doesn’t turn up for a few days they are under strict instructions not to work until they return. That ensures that the school hasn’t dismissed the teacher thinking that the volunteer will do the work.
Its all too easy for a volunteer to do what they think a community needs rather than what the community actually needs. The host community is too polite to say ‘no’ and will say ‘yes’ to any suggestion, irrespective of whether they actually think it will be useful. Not so with People and Places who always consult fully with the community on possible projects, finding out what the community thinks it actually needs help with.
In each country People and Places work in they have a local partner, chosen in part because they have an understanding of the volunteer’s cultural background as well as that of the host community. This ensures that they will understand what preconceptions and concerns the volunteer may have. In The Gambia the local partner is a well-known sustainable tourism expert Adama Bah. Both he, and his assistant Lamin, have studied in England so are familiar with our culture.
Why do you have to pay to volunteer?
Applying to be a volunteer through People and Places probably takes longer than any other volunteer organisation but that is because they do their homework, from finding out about the skills that a potential volunteer has to offer to discussing with their in-country partner how that volunteer may be used. Inevitably there are administration costs involved with this but it is an essential part of the process.
Each volunteer also donates £200 to the project that they will be working with. The project, the volunteer and the local partner decide together how the donation is to be spent.
Further more People and Places are the only overseas volunteer organisation that I know of who, at their own request, has had an independent advisor audit their organisation to show that they are actually doing what they promise to do, from looking at their accounts to see that money goes where they say it will go to following the email trail showing that the local community have been fully consulted and in agreement with every volunteer project.
Ensuring continuity between volunteers
New volunteers are given access to all the reports from previous volunteers to that project so that they can understand what work has been done and build upon it. This is also useful for returning volunteers so that they can see what has been done since they last visited. Volunteers are encouraged to talk to each other and be that on the phone, by email or face to face at social events. I’ll be going to one in November and I’m really looking forward to meeting some of the volunteers and finding out about their experiences.
For further information on this and other volunteering opportunities with People and Places, winners of the Virgin Holidays Responsible Tourism Award for Best Volunteering Organisation in 2010, please visit their website, travel-peopleandplaces.co.ukPhotography courtesy of The Gambia Experience and People and Places